The Miami Heat thrived through the grind, while the Boston Celtics struggled through it.
The result: the Heat held on for a 103-84 win over the Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Monday that bore various implications. The Heat advanced to their second NBA Finals in four years but became only the second eighth seed in league history to manage such a feat.
Miami will face the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Finals beginning with Game 1 on Thursday in Denver (8:30 pm ET, ABC). And the Celtics became the fourth team in NBA history to force a Game 7 after losing the first three games, only to lose in the final contest.
Below are five takeaways from Game 7.
Celtics’ Jayson Tatum played through pain
Just 26 seconds into the game, the Celtics already knew it could experience a difficult night. Tatum landed awkwardly on his left foot after driving to the basket and drawing a foul on the game’s first play.
Tatum still played through the pain, competing well enough to finish with 14 points, 11 rebounds, and four assists. But he shot just 5-for-13 from the field and 1-for-4 from 3-point range. Tatum also looked limited in his movement.
Tatum grimaced upon landing after completing a fast-break layup midway through the second quarter. Tatum winced on his landing after throwing down a two-handed dunk in the third quarter. And Heat forward Jimmy Butler easily blew past Tatum down the baseline late in the fourth quarter.
Kudos to Tatum for still gutting through the injury. But with Tatum averaging 28.8 points in other Game 7s through his career, it is clear that his ailment disrupted him from putting on another show in a high-stakes game.
Jimmy Butler bounces back in biggest game of Miami Heat’s season
It seemed inevitable the Heat star would have a strong performance. He lives for these moments. Butler finished with 28 points, seven rebounds, six assists, and three steals. Butler shot similarly inefficiently in Game 7 (12-for-28) as he did in Game 6 (5-for-21). He made up for that, though, by shooting well from deep (3-for-7) and stuffing the box score elsewhere.
Butler didn’t seem to play much differently to avoid elimination. During his Game 6 struggles, Butler still played aggressively. He remained poised enough to make all of his foul shots before Derrick White’s put-back game-winner. But it’s a testament to Butler’s resiliency and durability that he didn’t fold physically or mentally in Game 7.
Heat’s Caleb Martin became a secondary hero
Miami’s identity has partly hinged on its undrafted players proving their worth and playing above their potential. Not surprising then that Heat forward Caleb Martin finished with 26 points while shooting 11-for-16 from the field and 4-for-6 from deep, along with nine rebounds and three steals.
After all, he had averaged 18.2 points on 58.3% shooting and 5.8 rebounds in the Eastern Conference Finals. Martin also played a major part in fueling the Heat’s strong 3-point shooting overall (14-for-28). Anytime the Heat needed a timely basket, Martin was there to deliver.
The Celtics couldn’t hit anything from 3
Boston provided an early sign that it would struggle with its outside shooting (9-for-42). The Celtics missed their first 12 shots from 3-point range. They didn’t snap the drought until forward Al Horford made a 3 from the top of the key with 9:52 left in the second quarter.
At least the Celtics didn’t eclipse the Houston Rockets for most consecutive 3s missed in a Game 7 (27). But just like what happened in Houston during a Game 7 loss to Golden State in the 2018 Western Conference Finals, the Celtics settled too happily from deep. Jaylen Brown (1-for-9), Derrick White (2-for-9), and Marcus Smart (1-for-6) all failed to connect.
The Celtics didn’t necessarily force shots. In today’s NBA, it’s a necessity to shoot those anyway. Boston often rushed into taking those open looks, though. While they stayed disciplined with their ball movement, the Celtics didn’t play aggressively enough to find the easy baskets required to get in a better rhythm. That became a losing proposition considering Miami became dangerous from beyond the arc.
Expect the Celtics’ core to stay intact
No doubt, Boston should feel disappointed for not advancing to the NBA Finals as a No. 2 seed after losing to the Finals last year to Golden State. The Celtics should also feel disappointed for not winning a Game 7 at home after nearly overcoming an 0-3 series deficit. Don’t expect any major changes, though.
The Celtics have the talent and depth to compete for an NBA title just as they did last season. Though Celtics first-year head coach Joe Mazzulla showed his inexperience in the team’s first three losses against Miami, he also showed his growth during the team’s three-game winning streak. Considering the Celtics’ front office promoted Mazzulla following Ime Udoka’s dismissal, Boston appears optimistic their coach will grow significantly next season.